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Hey, where you from? Town ponders life as Got Milk? California

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Friday November 01, 2002


BIGGS — In a nation where Minute Maid spends $100 million to name a Houston ballpark, NASCAR hosts a Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn 400 and people seeking $1 million willingly expose their inner flaws on TV’s “Survivor,” what’s so wrong about becoming Got Milk? Calif.? 

That’s the question bedeviling 24 tiny California towns swept up in the milk industry’s newest promotional stunt. 

All are being offered cash, fame and possible hordes of tourists — to change names like Sand City, Dorris, Etna or Biggs to Got Milk? Calif. 

Credit the California Milk Processor Board. As it struggles to stabilize declining and flat milk sales in the nation’s leading dairy state, it hopes one brave town will dare to be different: for a possible Got Milk? museum, free school computers, a library expansion or new playground. Name a price. 

In turn, the board promises Got Milk? Calif., will become the centerpiece for a national publicity campaign celebrating 10 years of “Got Milk?” advertising. The campaign, which opened in 1993 and went national in 1995, features TV commercials of comical human dilemmas without milk, and milk mustaches on celebrities from President Clinton to Spike Lee. The aim is to counter a national 21 percent decline in per capita milk drinking since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as teenagers, especially, turn to soft drinks. 

“What I want,” says the milk board’s Berkeley-based director and ad man Jeff Manning, “is to be so happy to pick up a newly printed California map and run my finger down a road and see Got Milk? California.” 

In Biggs, a Central Valley hamlet of 1,793 best known for the state’s biggest rice miller and last year’s Wolverines high school football division championship, merely considering becoming Got Milk? has turned the town into a carnival of visiting reporters and a sense of what it’s like to be Michael Jackson or Cher. 

“We’ve been unplugging my phone,” says an exasperated Mayor Sharleta B. Callaway, recounting media calls from London, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, Albuquerque, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Idaho and Wisconsin. 

“ has my e-mail address,” she says. 

Initially humored by a local newspaper to pose in a “Got Milk?” T-shirt, the 37-year-old mother of four, who runs a day care center and serves as town commissioner of police, fire, water and sewers, now calls the idea preposterous. 

“I don’t think it’s going to happen. They’re using our name to go national in exchange for nothing,” Callaway says, “and I don’t think it’s fair to the community.” 

The City Council scheduled Nov. 18 to present the idea to townspeople. 

Many in Biggs, situated near Highway 99 an hour’s drive north of Sacramento — and near a road sign that asks, “Got Tractors?” — believe becoming Got Milk? will make them a laughingstock. 

“We’ll get made fun of all the time,” says Biggs High School student Laura Rodriguez. “Where you from? We’re from Got Milk? They’ll say, ’Here come the cows.”’ 

“It’s bad enough our Wolverine looks like a beaver,” chimes in fellow student Amanda Vargas. 

Manning concedes the idea may not be right for Biggs, named for a prominent 1870s’ citizen, Major Marion Biggs, who eventually moved to nearby Gridley. Attempts later to rename Biggs to Pittsville (in honor of another prominent citizen) failed. 

Biggs’ instant fame, Manning says, has attracted calls from two other California towns — neither invited to become Got Milk? — asking, “What about us?” He declines to name them. 

“I said, “This isn’t a bidding war here.”’ 

But Manning may want to keep the numbers. City officials in Maricopa, San Juan Bautista and Sand City — all invited to become Got Milk? — can’t imagine any town changing a name for less than millions of dollars. 

“We’re on the Monterey Peninsula and it would surely cause us to come in for some ridicule,” says Sand City Administrator Kelly Morgan. 

“It’s not worth it. We already have what we need to bring in the tourists,” echoes G. Dan Reed, city council member in San Juan Bautista, home of a 1797-built California mission. 

Despite such huffing, every town does has a price. In 1999, Mayor John Dindak of West Homestead, Pa., offered naming rights to his for $1 million — and still waits. But in 2000, Halfway, Ore., renamed itself for one year to to promote an e-commerce Internet startup later absorbed into Halfway, population 360, got $73,000 and several computers, and another $20,000 in 2001, says Steve Backstrom, publisher of the weekly Hells Canyon Journal. 

“There’s a couple of signs that say, ’Welcome to, America’s first Internet city,”’ he says. “Other than a couple of film crews and journalists that came in, I wouldn’t say we saw a boost in tourism from that.” 

Now it’s up to towns like Colma, Colfax and Fort Jones to bite.